I went to the tax office this morning to sort out a minor mix-up. I’ve never been to the tax office in England before, but I have had dealings with the Greek equivalent, known as the εφορία [eforía] and I was not looking forward to the encounter. The Greeks don’t pay taxes if they can get away with it, and they have been getting away with it for quite some time. It isn’t hard to see why. There’s the understandable reluctance to contribute funds towards some politician’s purchase of a BMW and villa by the sea, when you might use the money for your kids’ education or a BMW of your own. And then there’s the fact that the eforía employs some of the most suspicious, obstructive, uncivil, imperious, supercilious and dictatorial tossers you could meet outside Ljubljanka. And those are the nice ones.
I never went to the eforía alone. Even when I reached the stage when I could handle the content linguistically, I knew I would never get the style - the cap-in-hand prelude as you approach the clerk, the expository passage of arse-licking until she starts to treat you with naked suspicion, despite your being there to legalise your position, then the cadenzas of indignation on both sides. I always bottled out and took along Mr Panos, a retired accountant who knew the whole Byzantine system inside-out and who could do the prefatory smarm and ensuing barney to perfection. It was his task at one point to screw five years’ worth of tax rebates out of the eforía on my behalf, by filling in stacks of forms and arguing with assorted boors and harridans in a succession of grim offices. It took about five months. I tagged along with him, pretending me no speaky Greek an me no unnastan neetha. (Εκγώ ντεν από το Ελλάντα, εκγώ ντεν ξέρει Ελλάντα γκλώσσα.) We would sit on benches waiting for some slattern behind a desk to deign to speak to us. The usual procedure was a) slattern notices our presence; b) slattern makes sure we know she has noticed our presence; c) slattern spends a few moments rifling through papers and squaring up ledgers on her desk before noticing that a colleague is knocking off. She then favours the departing colleague with a gushing valediction: ‘γειά σου, γειά σου, Τασσούλα μου, χαιρετισμούς στον Δημητράκη, καλή ξεκούραση, τα λέμε, άντε, μπαι, γειά, γειά...’ 'Bye now, bye Tassoula dear, give my love to Dimitris, have a nice rest, see you soon, bye-bye, bye-bye…’ d) colleague slithers out of the office on a slick of honeyed words and e) slattern turns to us supplicants with a glacial ‘τι θέλετε, εσείς;’ ‘what do you want?’ as if she has caught a pair of Peeping Toms sneaking peeks through her living room window.
Mr Panos would then assume a horribly servile and placatory manner, begin to explain my case for the umpteenth time and for the umpteenth time counter a welter of shrill objections. He would pat his chest now and then and sigh ‘I have heart problems...’ which was laying it on a bit thick, I reckoned, but I really needed the rebates, so I resisted the urge to suggest we preserve our integrity by walking out with our noses in the air. The result was usually that we would be passed on to another harpy in another office in another part of town. Then the day arrived when Panos handed me a paper and told me to go on my own to such and such an office, where they would hand over the cash at last. After only the briefest of pauses for frowns and headshakes, and an automatically proposed but then quickly retracted ‘no, you have to go to your last eforía and ask for…’ I was sent to a grille through which was passed a wad of notes the size of a toilet roll. There was a look of admiration on the countenance of the cashier, I thought – maybe most people just gave up after the first month.
The staff at the office in Peterborough were welcoming, (μάλλον δεν το πιστεύετε αυτό, ε;) friendly and thoroughly obliging. There was a comfortable waiting area, where someone came to apologise that the appointments were running ten minutes late and reassure me that I had not been forgotten. A nice Indian lady sorted out my small problem in about half an hour, sitting with me at a computer as we filed my return online together. I departed happy. So if anybody from the eforía reads this, the message is just be fucking nice, you arseholes, and Greeks might consider paying their bloody taxes.
A mouthy Evangelical in Peterborough’s Cathedral Square was rebuking a group of youths who had stopped to listen, read his flip-chart and have a giggle. ‘You-are-mocking-the-God-who-died-to-save-you!’ he told them. You silly sod, I thought. Head so far up your arse you don’t suspect for a minute who the object of their mockery really is.
Mon 24 Jan. Am in Greece where I learn that these days, visiting the tax office is an even more unpleasant experience than it used to be. Everyone has been jolly naughty, and there's hell to pay.